9 March 2010

Murder most foul: story-telling in conversation

When sorting through old videotapes, I sometimes stumble across something speaker-related that prompts a post that's relevant to the main themes of this blog.

But today's clip is a bit different on two counts: it's not only the first time I've posted a clip featuring any of my relations, but also comes from the oldest speaker yet posted on the blog.

In 1981, my brother held a party to celebrate the 1ooth birthday of our paternal grandfather (who lived on for another five years after that). When most of the guests had gone, the camcorder was left running with a view to picking up some 'oral history' about the family and how farming had changed since he'd left school to work full time on the land in 1893.

By far the most startling revelation came when he launched into a story about a neighbouring farmer who, according to him, had murdered his brother (in an incident we later discovered had been passed off as a shooting accident).

Although it came at the end of a party, you shouldn't think that his narrative was influenced in any way by drink (other than tea). In fact, he used to boast that he hadn't been in a pub since 1898 - and hadn't drunk any alcohol then (or since). And on this occasion, in line with our childhood training, any evidence of domestic alcohol and tobacco consumption had been hidden away before he came anywhere near the house.

Anyone interested in conversation analysis will note that it's a fine example of an early observation by the late great Harvey Sacks about the way story-telling works in conversation, namely that stories take more than one turn to deliver.

So, before getting down to telling his story, JA prefaces it by giving us notice to expect an extended sequence of talk from him on the same topic ("I can tell you something else about ...") - after which DA's turns punctuate the story with regular 'continuers' (e.g. Yes) and occasional understanding checks (e.g. questions).

It's also interesting to see how, even at such a great age, a speaker still conforms to and can perform pretty well within the basic constraints of turn-taking.

To make this gripping tale easier to follow, there's an approximate transcript below.

JA: I can tell you something else about -uh - that farm that joins - does it join you?
DA: Yes
JA: what we called Mollets
DA: Yes, Mollets.
JA: The brothers fell out.
DA: Yes.
JA: And one brother killed the other - and the inspector went to see this farm.
DA: Yes.
JA: Because he'd said it about - that he'd killed him or he had died
DA: Yes.
JA: And do you know what the farmer said when he said to him about it?
DA: What?
JA: "I saw him do it!'
DA: (laughs): He saw him do it himself?
JA: No - his brother killed his brother.
DA: Yes, but he reckoned he'd killed himself?"
JA: (Aye) I don't know what the inspector or whoever he was who went to see him - but he'd be somebody but (????) if he shut up then, wouldn't he?
DA: (laughs)
JA: And they got over it some way or another but I never knew how - at least if I did I've forgot - but (?I haven't?) forgot that he did it - You see his brother - I think - him 'at got killed was the eldest. Well t'next man he was more of a gentleman, you see, he- this first one - worked - and he liked riding about on a horse.
DA: Yes
JA: And he thought I expect that he was a bit (of a waster) - and he would -uh - boss's brother - thats how the tale was when I was young.
DA: (Aye)
JA: But I never forgot it - never shall do.
(Background noise)
JA: (???) from Monk Fryston station to that farm - and he used to - this brother that he killed, he liked drink you see - he used to call at t'pub for a pint I expect - or else something else that he drank - but (?it was easy?) in them days - aye...


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DSA said...

On that particular day I remember a relation placing a whisky bottle in the kitchen cupboard and resorting to it more than once.

DSA said...

Unless you have a selective memory you will recall that there was a bottle of whisky in the kitchen cupboard.

Max Atkinson said...

I remember it well, but it was well hidden from Grandpa - as was the packet of cigarettes in my pocket!

Frugal Dougal said...

what a brilliant story!